Chef Paul’s Story

By: Kim Jones | May 6, 2014

Working within an economically growing community, in financially healthy state, in one of the most wealthy nations of the world, the staff of OSL are surrounded each day by individuals who struggle with not having enough to eat. The base issue behind the need for organizations like ours is simple: Poverty.

In the midst 99% movement, the conversations about a higher minimum wage within the limits of the City of Seattle, we are bombarded with amazing statistics: 15.1% of households live in extreme poverty in the county, and these households shelters one out of three African American children. The average CEO earns in one hour of work what their average paid employee makes in one month. Income inequality is alive in well in this a world.

At OSL we work break the cycle of poverty. We pay sustainable wages, and often hire from our client base. At the time that this is being published, at least 62% of the individuals employed by OSL have had experiences with homelessness, substance issues, or have been victims of domestic violence. This gives our staff a unique connection with our clientele. It also requires OSL to practice patience, and forgiveness as an employer. We provide training and benefits to those whom others deem unemployable. We offer a second, or third or fourth, chance to those who are able to ask, and even to those who are not. Not all of our stories have happy endings, but some of them do.

Chef Paul is a wonderful player on the OSL team, and today we share with you his story, told in his own words.

I knew as a young boy at the age of 12 that I would be involved in the food industry one way or another. My father was in the restaurant business and I thought I wanted to be just like him. I spent much of my youth learning to become a master cake decorator and by the time I was 18 the doors were wide open. The world, as they say, was my oyster. I went to work for Kroeger’s as a cake decorator and pastry chef for 11 years, however I had a dark secret that started to send me in a downward spiral; the long destructive path of drug abuse.

I spent 20 years going from town to town and sofa to sofa still denying I had any sort of problem. I became a great prevaricator and was able to camouflage my addictions for long periods of time. In October of 2005 I moved to Seattle still very addicted to cocaine. I learned to be an excellent story teller and could blend into any environment like a chameleon. I came up with an elaborate account that I was a Hurricane Katrina evacuee in hopes that someone would take pity on me and give me a place to stay. Things got out of hand and one lie led to another which led to another and before I knew it know it I was up to my eyeballs in lies. The problem with lying, with living life as a lie, is that it erodes into your very soul and not only does your self- esteem disintegrate, but it is impossible to remember what you told to whom. Pretty soon the discrepancies become apparent.

Anyway, I ended up homeless and became a client of the Compass Center in Seattle where I was given shelter and some hope. There, I met Beverly Graham and Krista Grimm from OPERATION: Sack Lunch. The lies continued to grow because I wanted to impress them. They embraced me like I was a family member and before I knew it OSL offered me a job in the kitchen as a cook and a few months later they offered me a dream job as the Executive Chef and Instructor of OCCUPATION Next Step, a pilot program training homeless people to become Chefs.

I thought everything would work itself out even though I was still heavily addicted to cocaine. I was trying very hard to live the lies that I had dreamed up in my head and told to everyone. The foundation is false and so not one part of my life was real. Beverly and her staff, the volunteers, and many others involved with OSL believed in me and praised my talents, but inside I felt dead. Before I knew it the stress of the lies, the deceit and the drug use was beginning to destroy me. I was at the end of my rope and the noose was getting tighter and I was caught in my deception.

Beverly did not prosecute me nor persecute me. She loved me. It was harder than anything I ever had experienced; to be loved inside my shame. Beverly exercised “tough love” and I was fired. I had nowhere to go, no family to turn to because they weren’t speaking to me, so I finally decided to seek help.

On January 11th, 2007, I went into treatment for my drug addiction. I moved into clean and sober housing and things began to change for me. After my treatment I only talked to Beverly a few times just to stay in touch and to let her know that I was doing O.K. She never made any judgments about my past but only loved me. For the first time in my life I realized what it felt like to have love and to love myself. The conversations that Beverly and I were having became more frequent, and finally I was able to go visit her at her home….whew! I thought it was going to be one of the hardest things I ever had to do but it turned out to be one of the best moments in my life.

I have been clean and sober now for more than 7 years. I now have my family back in my life and I have Beverly, Krista, and my OSL family back as well. In January of 2010 I signed a lease on my very first apartment ever! At 47 yrs old, I had never lived alone or had had anything I treasure to speak of. I now have a love for myself, my family and my OSL family and I was rehired as the kitchen manager for OSL in June 2010.

I now know the real meaning of honesty and compassion. I know that throughout our lives we meet people along the way for a reason. I never wanted to take the time to know why, but now I believe I do know why. Some people are just there and others you meet because they are there to guide and support you through the rough times. Then there are people like Beverly and the OSL organization that shows us how to truly love others even if they are outcast and undesirable. People can change when they are truly forgiven.

~ Chef Paul Nicolosi

Chef Paul was rehired in June of 2010, and has been an affirmation that love can heal even the most damaged heart. It takes courage and integrity to seek help. It takes determination to change a lifetime of behavior challenges one day at a time. It takes true humility to ask for forgiveness. Chef Paul plays a leadership role in our organization as a member of our kitchen leadership team. He is loved and admired by our clients and volunteers, and his contributions to OSL are a tribute to his own personal excellence. He has vision, humor, and humility, participates in the training of our chef staff, and continues to create superb culinary delights.

Thank you, Chef Paul, for allowing us to share your story.

The Management Side of the Outdoor Meal Site

By: Kim Jones | April 1, 2014

Since the City of Seattle and OSL collaboration began in 2007, OSL has had the responsibility to manage the Outdoor Meal Site (OMS). One quarter of the 460,000 meals we serve each year, are served at the OMS. The benefits of the OMS include a centralized location where those who are hungry can find a nutritionally dense, great tasting meal. These meals are served without prerequisite or judgment and are prepared in Health Department Certified kitchens, by people who have food safety in mind. Because of the extreme care taken with the preparation, content, and delivery of the meals served at the OMS contributes to well-being and overall health of the population being served. The OMS is located under the freeway, with the only public toilet open to un-housed individuals in Seattle, a place to wash hands and security present at every meal. This small spot accomplishes big things.

The OMS offers an alternative to meal providers who otherwise would serve in public parks or on the street. Serving in parks can create rodent and other public health issues, as well as creating un-welcoming environments for the general populace and merchants of Seattle. This is a good neighbor collaboration with local businesses, law enforcement, and the parks department.

On top of the 100,000 meals OSL serves at the OMS every year, logistically, our management duty to the OMS includes provider scheduling, cleaning, phone calls and staffing. We purchase equipment, make sure the porta-potty is clean, and stand up for those in need and the providers who serve those needs. One other important facet of the OMS management is a decade long attempt to engage providers who continue to serve in Seattle’s parks, creating a public nuisance and health detriment. We reconnoiter, educate, and offer our expertise and resources to encourage migration into the OMS. (If you would like to know about many of the complications facing outdoor meal providers, please see: http://serveseattlemealssafely.org/)

In August of 2012, I was charged to take my shift in City Hall and Occidental parks, awaiting the arrival of meal providers who had served in the park several weeks in a row. I had two one hour shifts, and here is my writing from that day:

Here I am, sitting in the sun in the middle of pioneer-square, surrounded by the people who I know we serve at the OMS, but there is no one serving food. There is evangelization. I have been sitting quietly so I don’t disturb a gentleman who is doing his best to sleep on this gorgeous Sunday morning. I was able to take a ride with the park rangers, and I have spoken with an un-housed gentleman about his amazing new pairs of socks which he got yesterday from a hygiene center. He was thrilled about them.

My purpose today may go unmet; I have not seen a single rogue meal provider, but still I did do good things, including an educational conversation with the park rangers. It seems as though they had no idea where and when we serve at the OMS. They don’t know they are to tell meal providers that there are other options and to contact OSL or these options.

I am degrading now, into aimless, stream of consciousness writing, spewing out my observations, in attempt to remember what to ask my far more experienced coworkers.

I don’t know what it means to sleep on cobblestone. What the protocol is if one finds abandon cardboard, which is used to cushion the body from the hardness or coldness of the ground and or the wetness of the grass…If someone walks away from it, is fair game? I could use that cardboard right about now. Would I have an even stronger hatred of seagulls were I to share a home with them? Or would some sort of respect be established? Do these trees provide any protection from the rain? Does one simply learn to sleep through the 2 am last call here, when all the bars close and hundreds of people just flow out into their bedrooms? Why is that guy peeing on the outside? Why, dear God, do we have so many houses without people and people without houses? What I do is so insignificant; however, it is so very important that I do it . . .

The writing ends there, but that was because I was busy for the rest of my shift.  A Bible Study youth group unloaded a BBQ and started cooking in the middle of Occidental Park. I approached them and was met with a bit of hesitancy at first, but once I explained who I was, they were much more receptive. The lead gentleman informed me that they only serve once every few months, and he seemed certain they would prefer to serve in the parks than at the OMS because that’s “where the people are”. I talked to him about him about their garbage and waste, the bathroom and hand washing stations. I explained that OSL could accommodate them in our kitchen, help provide meal ingredients, and provide security, if they would consider moving into the OMS. He took our flyer, and said he would take it to their leadership.

My objective for that moment was met, but not as expected. These weren’t the providers that were expected to show, but they were meal providers.

OSL is a multi-faceted organization. We fulfill our mission in variety of ways, through meals, through collaboration, through education, and through opportunities of service. We often don’t know, day to day, or year to year, how we can best serve our community. In the end we know, that in whatever form it takes, we are only serving love.

Meal Programs and Food Banks: What’s the Difference?

By: Kim Jones | March 25, 2014

According to data.seattle.gov, Seattle is home to approximately 100+ emergency food programs. The majority of these programs are Meal Programs, with 77 individual programs identified by the City. A smaller minority (36) are Food Banks.  Yet, when emergency food services are mentioned, food banks are what the majority of people think of, and food banks receive the majority of the cities resources. For every $1 the City of Seattle gives in support of meal programs, $5.90 is given to food banks.

At OSL, through our work as the Chair of the Meals Partnership Coalition for the past 16 years, we know that both Meal Programs and Food Banks are two crucial, but drastically different, components to the food safety net in our community. OSL works to educate the public about the differences, and to strive towards a more equitable distribution of resources for these two different groups.

Types of Services Provided

As individuals, we all need to secure food for ourselves and our families. When a housed individual is hungry, they are able to choose whether or not they go to the grocery store to stock their cupboards or to a restaurant if the need for a meal is immediate. If you have an empty kitchen and the skills to cook, , going to the grocery store is appropriate. If you are currently hungry, are away from home, do not know how to cook, are running short on time, or your kitchen is being remodeled, you will more than likely head to a restaurant to meet your meal needs.

Food banks and meal programs work in much the same way.

In Seattle, some Food Banks have taken the Grocery Store model. The food banks provide a grocery store setup where guests can  “shop” for the food that they need and want. Other food banks hand out food in pre-packaged bags to clients at predetermined times and locations throughout the week. However, the food that is distributed through food banks is in its raw form and requires a kitchen to prepare it into a meal.  This preparation requires cooking skills, storage space, and access to a kitchen where one can turn “ingredients” into “meals”.

Individuals that do not have a home, a kitchen to cook in, or basic cooking skills, often turn to meal programs to meet their food needs. Meals prepared at OSL are prepared by culinary professionals who understand the nuances of nutrition and great taste. Our meals are prepared in health department compliant commercial kitchens, which ensure that each meal is safe for public consumption. We hold our organization to a standard higher than most commercial kitchens, using non-biotoxic cleaning supplies, steam cleaning in addition to sanitization. Our kitchens are free of high allergen risk foods and materials, such as nuts, latex and shellfish. We work hard to insure that we are not creating any additional health stress for our guests, many of whom are already health compromised from life of poverty, whether housed or un-housed. Our meals are praised by our guests for their great taste, as well as for their nutritional density by community leaders.

OSL also works to educate those who are lacking basic cooking skills and reliant on donated commodities. A few years ago, our staff was approached by a client at the Outdoor Meal Site, praising the taste of the meal, a simple three bean chili, with cornbread and all the fixings. She asked our chefs how she could make it with the beans she received from the food bank, because no matter how she cooked them, she could never get them soft enough. This client did not know that she had to soak the beans first. We wonder out loud how many of the thousands pounds of dried beans that food banks distribute are going in the trash simply because people do not know how to prepare them. OSL offers cooking classes to low to no income individuals who want to know how to make fantastic meals out of donated food; after all, this is our excellence. Our chefs craft thousands of amazing meals each week out of state commodities, restaurant excess and donated goods. We never know what we are going to get, and the creativity that funnels around our kitchens is amazing!

In addition, Meal Program meals are made accessible by the ready delivery of meals throughout the region. Unlike Food Banks, which often require their guests to visit them, meal programs understand the transportation challenges our guests experience and thus have the ability to deliver hot meals across the region. OSL’s Food In Motion (FIM) serves as a model for these mobile meal programs. Covering a network from Lake City to Renton, from West Seattle to the Redmond, FIM make daily deliveries of nutritionally dense meals to many partner programs who serve our food insecure neighbors.

Conclusion

As food insecurity throughout the nation and our region grows, the ability of Emergency Food Providers to meet those needs must also grow. While Food Banks provide food services to a great number of people, it is imperative to remember that Meal Programs provide a different, but equally important, service to the food insecure and hungry in our community. Many of our guests at OSL do not have access to safe cooking facilities, nor do they have the training to prepare nutritionally dense meals. Meals programs, like OSL, make immediate access to food possible for our neighbors.

We encourage you to help OSL provide adequate representation and access to the resources that meal programs need in order reach more of our community members. Together, we can ensure everyone in our region has access to nutritionally dense meals.

Stories: Us, Alley Ways, Pigeons, Mailbox

By: Beverly Graham

Us

After the first couple of years of walking the streets to hand lunches out the folks started to post a person on the street corner to watch for my van. As I drove down Yesler, a cry would go up and by the time I turned the corner, 400 people would be lined up waiting for me on Occidental. There were so many of them that I barely had a moment to look up at them to see their faces. As I hurriedly handed of the sacks one day someone grabbed my hands. It caused me to stop and look up. A middle aged Hispanic man with a kind and gentle face looked me in the eyes and said “Lunch Lady, you save our lives”. That was the day I realized that everyone I was serving had a face, a name, and a story…They also had voices that were seldom heard…I knew I had to join my voice with theirs and began to tell their stories…It was how I learned that there isn’t a “them” and “me”… There is simply “us”…All of us… As my friend Tom Walker says in his song, “If one of us is homeless, none of us is home”…

 

Alley Ways

For the first few years I put the lunches I made in a big satchel that my Mom had made me for delivering the food. I would walk back to my car and fill the bag buck up several times. The bag held around 50 lunches. Often I walked several blocks before I handed out all of the lunches I had made. I walked under the viaduct, and into the park we called “death park” where drug dealers made their deals… I went into the Morrison; a shelter that had mattresses on the floor and also walked to the Lazarus Day Center for vets and homeless people over 55… they all knit me a red, white, and blue, afghan.

One day I still had around 10 lunches left as I walked past a dark alley; I glanced down the alley and I saw a group of guys standing and gesturing in animated conversation. I decided to give them the lunches I still had left. I walked down the alley and the guys, all enormous, circled, and towered over me. It dawned on me that it might not have been a good idea for me to have walked into a dark alley with a bunch of men. But…I was there to do a job…so I pulled out a lunch from my sack …looked at one of the guys and handed it over as I said “would you like a lunch?”… Then all of the men started to scold me at once…”Lunch Lady, don’t you know what could have happened?”… “Lunch Lady, don’t you ever do this again”… They shook their heads…they “tsk, tsked” me, and they each took a lunch. From that day on, when I pulled my van into the lot at the Lazarus Center, there were always two men from that group that took turns to walk as my body guard. I told them they didn’t need to; that I would be just fine. They told me I couldn’t be trusted to “not do something foolish”. They were rough and tumble, and they had hearts full of kindness.

 

Pigeons

I used to walk through the plaza in pioneer square. There was a very large black man, (6 foot 6 inches tall, 260 lbs) that used to sit on the First street bench. He always had a world globe and other interesting paraphernalia gathered round him, and he had a sign with a bucket. He was a professional beggar with an apartment of his own and nice belongings. He wanted to date me…

One day as I was walking through the plaza handing out lunches and there was a bunch of younger guys, 20ish, sitting on the benches and I handed each of them a lunch. They had been smoking pot. As I handed a lunch to one of the guys a pigeon flew overhead and pooped on me. Yep. Pigeon poop. The guys all started hooting and laughing, tears rolling down their faces. There were two things I could have done…walk away indignantly or laugh with them. As I wiped the bird poop out of my hair, I began to laugh with them. That was the day I started to think of pigeons as rats…with wings…

Mailbox

When I first began making lunches for the people who lived un-housed in Seattle I used the money I made doing music…and then I used our house payments, utility payments, the kids college savings, took a second mortgage on our house, and finally took another loan…and then the money simply ran out. On the day the money run out I called my friends, Bob Hamilton and Linda Berger, who had been helping me pass out the meals to tell them I couldn’t buy the ingredients for the lunches for the next day. I felt very despondent and felt like I had failed; deep in debt, and no way to continue. A few minutes after I had made the calls I went out to the mailbox. When I opened the mailbox and took out all the envelopes, mostly unpaid bills, there was one that was sent from Kennedy High School; where I had been invited to speak about hunger and homelessness. When I opened the envelope there was $2000 in it. Lunch was on! It was the first of many miracles.

Stories: Civil Disobedience, Ramon, Sleeping Bags

By: Beverly Graham

Civil Disobedience

Overlake school, a private school in Bellevue, was the first school to volunteer with me in 1991. 12 students arrived to help hand out lunches…These were students from a very privileged school and I really did not know what to expect from them but they were amazing. We started handing out food and the police showed up. There was a youngish officer that was very full of himself. He dogged my heals, yelled at me, and was very rude. I tried to ignore him and not engage with him. The students were thrilled. The officer told me I had to stop, yelled at me to give him my identification, and told me that what I was doing was not legal. I was not a respecter of persons back then, nor did I care too much about respectful engagement. I might have told him to kiss my ass…He detained me for an hour until the sergeant on duty came down to Occidental.

The sergeant was a big man; ex marine. I thought I was going to be arrested and was a bit nervous. I looked up and up at him and told him that I was NOT handing out food in the park. He looked baffled for a moment and asked me what I meant. I told him that I was on the sidewalk outside of the park but that I had not gone into the park. It became apparent that he had no idea why he had been called down to the street. The sergeant looked at the young cop and asked him what “the hell” he thought he was doing. The young officer replied that he was detaining me because I was encouraging people to loiter and that I didn’t give them a place to wash their hands before I gave them a lunch. The sergeant looked at the young cop as if he was going to throttle him…He left in disgust throwing a look over his shoulder that said ” wait till you get back to the station”…

The young cop just could not give it up though. He didn’t like me…I may have been a bit flippant to him… He told me I was a bad role model for young people; encouraging civil disobedience… And he wasn’t fond of the population that was being served… He found out who I was, where I was from, and found out that I did music for the archdiocese of Seattle. He took a trip to the church in Bothell where I provided music and had a meeting with the priest. The priest was Armondo Guzman. He told Armondo that I was a public nuisance and a menace. He told Armondo that he should tell me to stop doing what I was doing. Armondo asked him what I was doing that was so disturbing. He told Armodo that I was feeding people and bringing them necessities. Armondo asked in disbelief, “you want me to tell her to stop feeding the hungry?”

I started putting anti bacterial hand wipes in the lunch sacks. Whenever I saw the young officer I smiled and waved at him and asked him if he wanted a lunch…

 

Ramon

One Sunday I was handing out bags and it was getting dark and it was very cold. There were no more names on my list so I started taking names for the next week. I still had eight sleeping bags in my van. After I took the first name and ID I decided that it was too cold to not give those last eight bags out just because my list was done. So I called the name I had just written down. His name was Ramon Pantherbones. He was half way across the plaza and he ran back to me when I hollered out his name. I did not look up but reached into the van, handed him a bag, and crossed his name off the list. Ramon was wearing snakeskin cowboy boots and I could see that he wasn’t moving because I could still see his boots, so I glanced up. Ramon was around 50 ish, Native American – Hispanic, very handsome. Black hair with grey at the temples, pulled back into a queue at the neck. He had warm black eyes that crinkled and a lovely smile. Ramon tucked the sleeping bag under one arm and reached down and took my hands into his. He looked deep into my eyes.

It was much like a Walt Disney movie. All the noise of the city; the sirens, the cars, the shouting, all of it just disappeared, and there was only me and Ramon looking into each other’s eyes… Ramon nodded at me…I nodded at Ramon. When I looked up into Ramon’s face, God looked back at me from his eyes. I knew in that moment that I had just handed Jesus, the Christ, a sleeping bag…Ramon turned and walked away. I had never seen him before…I never saw him again… My life was irrevocably altered.

 

Sleeping Bags

During the winter there are many casualties of weather…usually elder adults. A simple thing like a sleeping bag that is good down to 15 degrees can save a life. New warm white socks can prevent immersion foot; a terrible disorder that affects feet that can never get dry and clumps of flesh peel off and bleed. I made the decision that along with food I would had out new sleeping bags and new socks. They had to be new…Many times with the best of intentions we hand off our ‘throw a-ways”… For people who live on the fringe this message is detrimental as it implies unworthiness. Just like clothes that are handed down to the next child in line who is never allowed to feel the specialness of having something new, so it is when old and used things are passed out to those who are un-housed; no matter how they got there. I have discovered that when the feeling of unworthiness sets in it takes more than a place to live to make someone not “homeless” in the mind.

The first couple of time I handed out bags there were near riots of people desperate to get a bag, but I soon developed a system. I had to be shown a piece of identification that had their name on it. I wrote then name on a list and the next week I had to be shown the same piece of ID and they would receive a bag. I bought 150 bags a week to hand out. The ID could be a library card, green card, bus pass, or a license, anything that had a name on it. I handed out bags each Sunday. I stood on the sideboard of my van and started calling the names on the list. There were two lines. One that was already on the list, and one that was waiting to be put on the sleeping bag list. As the called their names I would check ID’s, hand the bag off, and cross their name off the list.

One time I was handing out bags and people were pushing and hollering. I got a little scared so I climbed up and stood on the Memorial Wall at the plaza and I tried to yell over them. There were some very angry guys who had gotten bags the week before but they wanted another one and thought they could bully me into giving them over. I told them they could not have another bag because there were so many people in line that had never received a bag. They screamed in my face. They were yelling at me and everyone else was yelling at them. I held up my arms and in an effort to be heard over them asked for silence. All of a sudden it was silent…Very silent… I thought they were finally quieting down for me and I was full of myself…

From the corner of my eye I caught a movement a bit to the side and behind me and so I slowly turned around. There I discovered the reason for the sudden silence. Two giant 7 foot Samoans had climbed up on the wall and were standing behind me pointing at the miscreant men that had caused such mayhem… The two men quietly walked away. Everyone else in line was sniggering… Guardian Angels come in all sizes.

Stories: Heart, Generosity, Heroes, Pride

By: Beverly Graham

Let Your Heart Break

Every day I tried to have at least 400 lunches to hand out. It usually took me about 5 hours to put the meals together and a half of an hour to hand them out. I always took extra food just in case someone came up after all the full lunch bags were gone. One day I simply ran out of food. I turned and looked and there were still a least 100 people in what felt like a never ending line. I was all of a sudden overwhelmed and distraught. I put my head down for a moment and then, embarrassingly, burst into tears. Not quiet running down your face silent tears, but heart wrenching, noisy sobs. I couldn’t stop. It was too much. The grief, the hunger, and the courage it took every day for many of them just to breathe. And I failed them… I let them down…

All of a sudden I was surrounded by the people. They were saying, “who hurt you lunch lady”…” tell us who hurt you”…Their care of me and concern for me made me cry even harder. Finally I choked out that no one had hurt me…that I had run out of food. I blubbered that I was sorry I let them down. And then arms went around me, and people were patting my back, squeezing my shoulders and saying “you didn’t let us down”, and “we love you lunch lady” and “you just can’t feed the whole world”… and I was surrounded in a cocoon of grace. That was the day my heart broke…wide open.

 

generosity

Besides handing out sleeping bags I also handed out new warm blankets. Blanket day was always stressful and the crowds around my van were very desperate. They would line up around the corner to get a blanket. Sometimes they would push and shove each other and I would get dinged. I am 4’11” and weigh 100 lbs. A crowd of 300 pushing people was a bit frightening so I would stand on the side step of my van in order to be seen and heard. I always had guardians around me that would say, “don’t worry Lunch Lady, as long as we are here, ain’t know one gonna hurt you!” And so I did not worry.

After one grueling day of 400 lunches, hygiene supplies, socks, and blankets, an elder man around 75 tottered up to my van for a blanket. I had just given the last one to a young man around 20. The younger man stood there for a moment looking down at his blanket, and then he glanced up at the older man. He walked over to him and said “here old man, you need this more than I do” and he handed him the blanket…

…giving away the only think of value that you have…This is where I learned true generosity.

 

heroes

One day I was handing out lunches out of the back of my van at the Lazarus Day Center when it was on Occidental, a store owner walked out from their storefront and started yelling at me for feeding so many people. She called the police and all the homeless folks circled me to keep me from harm. A friend of mine, Chris Pence, who is an attorney, was in a meeting at the top of his office building at the Smith Towers and his partner looked out of the window. He was drawn to the crowd a few blocks away and wondered what was going on. He looked at Chris and said “is that Beverly down there?”… And so they hiked down the four blocks to where I was encircled by a human wall. Two three piece suits introduced themselves to the police officers as my “Attorneys”. The police left…The store owner went back into her store. I gave everyone a lunch and the drama, that day, was over!

However, the Seattle police harassed me a lot in the early days of the program; 1989 to 1994. I was fined, cited, detained… One time on a very icy cold day, I walked across the street to give a lunch to a double amputee who couldn’t cross over the ice. I was given a ticket for Jay Walking. It was getting to be a battle of wills. The newspaper did a story about aggressive panhandlers and the editorial cartoon in the paper had a homeless man yelling at a tourist, “GIVE ME YOUR SPARE CHANGE”, as he grabbed him by the shirt collar. Behind him was a little short woman, looking suspiciously like me, reaching out with a lunch in her hand saying timidly “would you like a lunch?” The editorial suggested we should ship all the homeless people out of Seattle and get rid of all the “do gooders”… I had never thought of myself as a “do gooder”… The caption on the story was “Garbage in the Park”… I started bringing big black garbage bags with me and the guys would walk around the sidewalks picking up all the garbage they could find.

One particularly hard day with lots of people, lots of cops, and me; a white van squealed down the street and parked illegally across from where I was standing in the throng. A man jumped out of the van with a camera crew. He jay walked in front of the cops and walked over to me; his crew filming him all the while. He reached down and picked me up and held me in an enormous bear hug. This gallant knight in a beat-up news van was Ken Schram… Unbeknown to me he was a fan of my music…still is… and was following my unpopularity with the Seattle police and the merchants. That night Ken did an editorial that talked about Seattle’s inhumanity… The police stopped harassing me after that for a while, and I began a slow evolution towards understanding the view from the watchtower… I have had many hero’s!

 

Pride

Back in the early 1990’s many of the people who waited for me to arrive with food were a bit older; 35ish to 80. Most of them were men, some elderly women, a lot of them were veterans. There was a young man who showed up one day, he was around 20ish and very angry. He was big, mean, and wore gang colors. He stood to the side of the line screaming at me, calling me names. He screamed “these people don’t need your food bitch, they need a fucking job! Can you get them a fucking job?” He scared me a bit and he terrified the folks standing in line. On the third day I was so angry that I slammed down the back of my van and marched my 4 foot 11 inch self over to him…I looked up and up and said “I get it, you’re mad. But it is not OK to be mad at me… I am here to help. I don’t think I am better… I think we are all the same. You are scaring the people and they want me here. If you can’t do anything positive and useful, go away.” I marched back to my van, shaking, and finished handing out the food. He stopped yelling.

The next day I didn’t see him and I began handing out the lunches in peace. I had handed out 100 or so and looked up as I was handing the next one… The angry young man took the lunch from me. He shoved the lunch into his zipped up coat, stood there for a minute and then asked me, “do you need help?”… I looked at him for a moment, nodded my head and said “Yes I do”… He taught me how to let go of pride…

Stories: Naivete, Margaret and Jym

By: Beverly Graham

Naïveté

There was an old guy around 82ish that we called the “Rev”. He had a long beard, gnarled hands, walked with a bit of a hunch, and always carried a bible. Sometimes he preached fire and brimstone. Everyone in the line was very tolerant of his outbursts. For several years, every day, he walked up the hill and a couple of blocks from the Morrison and stood in line for a lunch. He always asked for 7 lunches and told us he was taking them to the “old guys” down at the shelter because they couldn’t make it up the hill. So every day I gave him seven lunches…

One day of the guys in line said to me, “Queen B (by this time my nickname had changed) do you know what that old man does with those lunches?” I told him I did know. That he took the lunches to the “older than 80 men” that could not make it to the meal site. He started hooting and laughing and everyone that could hear were shaking their heads and grinning at me…I stood there waiting for his laughter to subside so he could fill me in on the joke. When he finally contained himself he said, “That old man doesn’t give the lunches to them… he sells the lunches to them; for $3 each!!!

Hmmm… 7 x 3…$21 dollars a day. The “Rev” was an entrepreneur!

 

 

Margaret

One day I was parked on the corner of Occidental across from the park. It was a much different park in the early 90’s. At that time the benches were removed so that those who were homeless couldn’t sit or sleep. If they did they were sited and taken into custody for loitering. The City wanted to keep the park safe for “legitimate” residents. I guess you have to dress or smell a certain way to be “legitimate”.

I stepped out of my van and was surrounded by several hundred people who I asked to stand in a line so I didn’t get confused. They always humored me. As I began handing out the meals a very large woman pushed her way through the lines screaming at people to “get out of her way”. People did get out of her way because her oncoming energy was disruptive and because they were fearful of her. Her name was Margaret. She weighed about 400 lbs. She wore no shoes, even in winter, because her feet were so wide, shoes did not fit on her feet. She had oozing sores on her legs and she was angry. When she shoved her way to the front of the line I thought “holy crap, she’s going to kill me”. She screamed at me that I was a “stupid white bitch”…even though she was as lily white as me… She told me she needed more food than the “rest of them” so I gave her a lot of food, filled a black garbage bag, and sent her on her way with a promise that I would be back with things I thought she might need. She scared the be-jeezus out of me. She was 8 inches taller than me and outweighed me by 300 lbs. My heart was pounding after she left. Even the big guys were wary. One said to me, “Lunch Lady, that’s trouble with a capital T!”

I started bringing Margaret vitamins, salve for her legs, and food that was safe for diabetics. I was sure Margaret had diabetes as well as being bi-polar and manic. Some days she was lucid and some days she was rabid, but she never was late to a meal. At the beginning of the month she could afford her meds so she was relatively calm and amiable, but, by the end of the month she was angry and rude and mean; Jekyll and Hyde…

On the day that Ken Schram drove onto Occidental to thwart the authorities and lend his considerable public influence in my favor, Margaret was enamored. She approached me, shyly for her, after he left and asked if I could get her a picture of him because she was such a fan. I called Ken up and asked him to sign a picture for Margaret. He signed it, “to Margaret…Much Love, Ken Schram…” Margaret was over the moon. She had tears in her eyes that she roughly brushed away when I handed her the picture. I know that it became her most prized possession and she told people that she and Ken were “good friends”.

I do not think that anyone ever loved Margaret for all of her life. No one ever made her feel special or cared for. She was utterly alone. She was full of pain and self hatred. She took it out on the world. Sometimes, when she let me, I would stand and talk with her. She was like a wary animal, always waiting for the net to fall. She told me things that had happened to her as a young girl that made me want to tear my hair and crucify the people that had abused her. I wanted to take away her pain, but I didn’t know how to reach her, or what she needed, so I just kept bringing her special foods, treats, big slippers for her feet, queen size clothing, vitamins and water. I wanted her to feel, that by my actions, I loved her. One day Margaret didn’t show up and I never saw her again…

 

Jym

When we are children we are taught to hold hands when crossing the street, not to eat paste, to share our toys, and to play nice. As we grow we are often taught to stop sharing, to eat anything we want, even it is bad for us, and play any way we want as long as we win at any cost. It is no wonder that we grow up confused how to be true humans…

My friend Jym Greene was a veteran of the first Gulf Coast war in 1990. He was a Navy Seal and had Gulf War and post traumatic syndrome when he was discharged. He had been chemically injured and when he came home he received no help and became homeless. He was often depressed. He began volunteering with OSL when he was 34.

Every day Jym waited for me to arrive. He always brought a group of his friends and they would take over; setting the food up, getting out cups and plastic cutlery. The people on the street respected him. He was kind and gentle. He was also a genius. He could do anything on a computer and was a proficient hacker. He gave classes at the Library to other homeless people and showed them how to set up email accounts and access information on line. He wrote articles for the “Real Change” newspaper; a paper that supports and advocates for the homeless in Seattle; www.realchangenews.org. He looked like a big Teddy Bear and he walked the streets of Seattle carrying his back pack full of 100 pounds of books.

Jym slept on the bus. He took the bus to the end of the route, woke up, got on another bus and took it to the end of the route. He never got a full night’s sleep. He wouldn’t stay at a shelter because of the pesticides they use. He told me that the pesticides made people very ill. His older brother Don was also homeless. Jym took care of Don. Jym never had an unkind word to say about anybody and everyone loved him. He spent most of his time doing research in the library but he never missed volunteering for a meal. He was always there to help. He had a hard time finding shoes because he wore a size 15. Once I bought him a pair of size 15 Nike Sneakers. The joy on his face made them seem like a $1000 pair of Italian Leather shoes. The gift of his smile is still carried in my heart.

One night, about one in the morning, I was working on a grant and an email came in. It was from Jym’s brother Don. It said simply, “Jym’s Dead”.

The next morning I called the Seattle coroner and found out that Jym had died at the age of 36 of a heart attack carrying his heavy satchel of books up a steep Seattle hill. I asked if they would release his body to me as Jym was homeless and that we would see to his burial. They told me that his family had already had him cremated. I was shocked! I had no idea that Jym and Don had family in the area. The coroner gave me a phone number. I called and spoke to one of Jym’s family members. I asked when Jym’s funeral was. They seemed surprised and said to me “Funeral? There is no funeral. Jym was a bum”. They were ashamed of him. I could not believe my ears. I was stunned for a moment. I was speechless. But then a burning began in me.

“Jym was not a bum” I told them. “He was homeless, but he was not a bum. Jym was a giver to life. He gave to people who needed him. He didn’t care about money or belongings. He only wanted to give to those who were unhappy, unhealthy, and despondent. If you won’t give him a service, we will”.

And so we planned a memorial service for Jym. We held it at the Veteran’s Memorial Wall. I did the music, OSL put on a meal, and hundreds of people, some homeless, some not, came in memory, honor, and celebration of Jym’s life. We invited his family members and had an open mic where people could talk about Jym and what he meant to them. Person after person spoke about Jym’s kindness and consideration, about his selflessness, and how he encouraged positive life changes. Jym’s family learned that Jym was not “just a bum”, but a valued human being; worthy of love, respect, and admiration. They sat and listened while all those Jym had helped spoke about him with love and honored his life. Jym did not value money, or clothes, or belongings; he valued people, and even in his pain and damage, he was a giver to life. Jym was my beloved friend. He owned nothing, but he had everything. Jym taught me humility. He was a true human. I miss him…